Previous census placed migrants in the rural population

China on Monday began its sixth population census, and the first in a decade, which will for the first time attempt to map the country's ever-increasing population of migrant workers.

On Monday, more than 6.5 million census-takers began the 10-day process that will see them visit some 400 million households. The whole process is expected to cost the government 700 million yuan ($103 million).

The last census, in the year 2000, recorded that the country had a 1.29-billion population. This will significantly be the first census that will map China's vast migrant population.

Every year millions of Chinese leave their home provinces to find work in cities, particularly in the prosperous coastal east. Much of China's economic boom and rapid urbanisation has been driven by the influx of migrant labour to the cities.

The previous census, however, registered migrant workers according to where their household-registration permit, or hukou, was issued. This meant a migrant worker like Tang Xu Yun, who is from the southern Anhui province but lives and works in Beijing, was represented as part of the rural population in the last census.

Scholars say this approach presented a skewed picture of China's urbanisation, stating the rural population as being as high as 800 million. This census, however, will provide the most accurate assessment yet of the migrant population — estimates from scholars range from 100 million to more than 225 million migrant workers.

This assessment will allow the government to better plan how it can expand social services for migrant workers in cities. In recent years there have been growing calls to reform the hukou system, which denies migrant workers access to healthcare, education and social benefits in cities. The restrictions have been cited as a major factor behind rising income inequalities, which grew to the widest ever in the People's Republic's six-decade history last year. An urban resident earns 3.3 times more than a rural-registered resident.

Not an easy task

But mapping China's changing demographics is not going to be an easy task for the 6.5 million census-takers, with rising privacy concerns.

In Guangzhou, where the census began early on account of the Asian Games that will begin next month, census takers found many residents unwilling to answer questions. Fear among families who have not adhered to family planning rules is another reason behind the privacy fears.

Chinese Vice-Premier Li Keqiang last week attempted to assuage fears that the information would be used by law enforcement departments, stressing that the information would be kept confidential by the census authorities.

But it remained unclear whether his appeal would suffice. “People no longer feel they should be managed,” Zhang Yi, a researcher for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the China Daily. “Instead, they believe they should be served by the government. That is why they say no to census takers before they are convinced their privacy is protected.”

In Beijing, Ms. Tang from Anhui, who makes a living cleaning apartments, said she would cooperate. “Chinese people don't like answering questions about their own lives,” she said. “But I have nothing to hide.”

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